Roadless areas provide critical refuge

Roadless areas are essential to maintaining air and water quality and providing critical wildlife habitat, yet the largest remaining roadless area in the continental United States can be traversed on horseback in a single day. Outside of Alaska, only five percent of forested land has been protected as parks or wilderness. The other 95 percent of forests is fragmented by 400,000 miles of roads. The approximately 10,000 miles of new roads built each year render the Forest Service the largest road building company in the world. The length of roads in the National Forest is eight times that in the interstate highway system. Within our National Forests, 1.6 miles of road are present per square mile. This road density is 45 percent greater than that of non-Forest Service land, which has a road density of 1.1 miles of road per square mile.

While 34 million acres of wilderness exist in the United States, another 50 million acres of roadless wildland are unprotected. In 1979, Congress legislated RAREII, an inventory of remaining roadless areas. Since 1979, losses of roadless land have ranged from an annual loss of one million acres nationally to the loss of one million acres of Idaho’s roadless lands over a decade. While much of the protected lands in the wilderness system are rock and ice wildernesses, the highly species-rich, low-elevation forests remain largely unprotected because of greater accessibility and timber availability.

Many wildlife species, such as grizzly bears and wolves, are intolerant of human disturbance; their roaming and foraging lifestyles require large tracks of undisturbed land. Despite this, there are 7,500 miles of roads in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the home of one of the nation’s last remaining grizzly populations as well as recently reintroduced wolves. Just several hundred undisturbed acres can maintain the microclimates necessary for the sustenance of smaller species, many of which are endangered. Roadless areas provide a source pool able to replenish the populations of bordering, fragmented areas. Wildlife from less disturbed areas facilitates regrowth in logged areas by aiding in nutrient cycling and reseeding.

The vegetation of roadless areas provides important ecosystem functions including air and water purification. Conversely, USDA undersecretary Jim Lyone cites roads as the primary cause of declines in river water quality.

Roads result in soil runoff entering streams as well as an increased incidence of landslides. During the intense winter storms of 1995 and 1996, 70 percent of Idaho’s 422 landslides were attributed to the presence of logging roads. Runoff and landslides destroy fish habitat by preventing fertilization of eggs and causing increased mortality. Human access augments wildlife poaching and fire ignition. Roads also facilitate the invasion of non-native plants.

Due to the large cost of road construction, each year taxpayers pay logging companies millions of dollars to denude our forests of their last precious trees. Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck has admitted to the existence of $440 million in backlogged maintenance on 232,000 miles of National Forest roads. While roadless areas are invaluable to wildlife, the aesthetic value of roadless wilderness provides opportunities for recreation. A recent Forest Service study found that, by the year 2000, recreation, fisheries, and wildlife will combine to contribute $100 billion annually to the economy. This revenue far exceeds those of mineral and timber extraction, which contribute $10 billion and $3.5 billion, respectively.

No more road building is necessary in our National Forests. A 1993 Forest Service survey found that 70 percent of Montana residents oppose destructive road building in the last remaining roadless areas. If full protection were granted for the three million acres of remaining roadless areas that are considered to be critical habitats, logging levels would be reduced by only six percent. The significance of this number is reduced further when one considers that just under four percent of the wood used nationally is derived from National Forests. Some may assert that logging roads provide valuable access to our National Forests. While 378,000 miles of roads seems to be excessive for any road-trip, most of the unpaved logging roads are inaccessible to use by vehicles other than high clearance logging trucks.

In November 1997, President Clinton ensured that “a scientifically based policy” would be implemented to manage roadless areas in order to protect “these last remaining wild areas.” The terms of an 18-month temporary moratorium on the building of logging roads are currently being finalized. Although the moratorium makes significant progress in protecting our roadless areas, the initial terms of the moratorium were not sufficiently inclusive or stringent. Many critically important roadless areas were excluded in order to concede to commercial interests. As the long-term policy is being developed, we must tell our representatives that we will no longer continue to allow large corporations to fragment and desecrate our forests’ last havens of wilderness.